IN SOMEONE ELSE'S SHOES

February 2006


[This is an older essay that I pulled from my "Public Involvement" web pages. I like it here because it was prompted by a controversy between a rancher and a Federal land management agency. Also, I think it provides some interesting insight into why people might be attracted to a particular cause that, at first blush, you wouldn't think they would find appealing.]

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I made a real communications blunder, awhile back. Someone I didn't know sent me a newspaper story about a Nevada rancher fighting with the Forest Service over land uses. The story was from a newspaper infamous for its anti-Government sentiments, and was told strictly from the standpoint of the "beleagured" rancher. It ended with long quotes from the rancher, with references to Gestapo tactics, the profaning of the Constitution, and the subjugation of true Americans by a corrupt and lawless Government.

The note accompanying the article seemed nice enough, so I took it upon myself to "educate" the sender. Here's part of my response: 

"I have been party to a lot of interaction between Government and private citizens, and have witnessed/been party to a lot of disasters - some caused by Government, some caused by people who despise Government in any form. I hadn't heard about this particular case, (but) this was obviously a very one-sided presentation, and the paper (as is their habit) took the rancher's word for everything that happened. Although I have seen most of the individual events in one situation or another, I've never heard of a situation in which the Government was so heavy-handed."

Remember that last phrase, because my correspondent certainly did. She (a Native American, it turns out) responded to me with a long, strong lesson on all the treaties that "the Government" had broken with Native American tribes, about land stealing, about taking native children from their parents to be raised in Government schools, about forcing Native Americans off their lands and relocating them to Government "concentration camps," and on and on. She finished with a (nicely put) suggestion that perhaps I should read up on American history, and she even made a few suggestions as to what I should read. No heavy-handedness by the Government, huh?

I was stunned, and also a little ashamed of myself. When I responded with my "don't believe everything you read" statement, I was obviously completely mis-reading what was really on my correspondent's mind. As later communications would show, she knew nothing about "the Sagebrush Rebellion," and knew little about the continuing clash of cultures over use of Government lands in the American West. What had attracted her to the article - because of her tribal background - was that "the Government" was once again bullying someone out of their "rights." 

Why am I telling this story in my "public participation" series? Because I was guilty of what we all are sometimes guilty of in our interactions with others: we get into a discussion thinking that we know just exactly what's on the other person's mind. Often - at least, subconsciously - we boil it down to a simple choice: he likes our proposal, or he doesn't like our proposal. Oh, if was only that simple!

This particular misunderstanding was easily corrected (see part of my response, below), by me admitting my blunder and showing a little understanding of her concerns. Note in my response that I was still able to re-state my concerns about the accuracy and credibility of the article. She thanked me on all three points.

"When I said that I'd never heard of a situation when Government was so heavy handed, I should have limited myself to some of the recent confrontations between land owners and the managing agencies. Just before getting back on the internet tonight, I was reading a new book on King Philip's War - 1675-1676 in New England. Sad to read about all the promises broken to the Narragansetts and other New England tribes, the land stealing, the murdering, the slavery, etc. Many people would prefer not to believe that such things ever happened in this country.

"The target was different, but the situation was similar in our later "War of Independence." The way that the Loyalists (those who didn't want to rebel against England) were treated was in its way much like what those folks did originally to the local tribes - loss of land, loss of life. Funny how the history books forget about it, or put a certain self-serving gloss over it.

"There is lots of injustice in the world that can never be fully corrected, I know. Still, I can't put some of the recent anti-Government activity and rhetoric in the same category - it's too blind and too self-serving."

Issues are almost never as simple as we would like them to be. Approaching your publics without some attempt to "walk in their shoes" is just asking for misunderstandings and unnecessary problems.

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